Asian Women: Past, Present and Future

Yuri Kochiyama

by Yuri Kochiyama

 Yuri Kochiyama has been a prominent activist in the Asian and Third World movement for many years. Her involvement in the anti-war movement, community struggles, redress/reparations, workers organizing and international liberation support work has earned her the respect of thousands of people. On March 7, 1981, she delivered this keynote address to the East Coast Asian Student Union's Asian Women's Conference held at Mt. Holyoke College.

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Thank you for the opportunity and privilege of being here with you. We as Asian women are here, I think, for several reasons: 1 ) to get to know one another, have dialogue with each other, feel good vibes of mutual concern and unity; 2) to explore who we are, have been and where we would like to go as Asian women, as Third World women, international women and just plain women; 3) to seriously consider questions like: What brought about stereotypes? What has been the history of Asian women? Are we subservient to societal forces, traditions, trends? What should we oppose; what should we support? Where are we now? What are our needs? In a constantly changing world, priorities change as new problems develop. Strategies and tactics must change as assessments become clearer. Minority women's rights and general women's rights must be placed in proper perspective.
We must also realistically realize that the era of visibly recognizable Asian women in the United States may be only for a few more generations. A large percent of Asian women are marrying non-Asians and their heirs may not look that Asian, but a woman's most personal rights are the right to choose one's mate and the right to procreate when she desires or is ready to do so.
Also, the large influx of Asian refugees must be our concern, for the problems they will face in this country should not be shouldered by themselves alone. We, as Asians and as concerned women, must keep abreast of their needs and adjustment.
Thus, my topic will be: "Asian women, past, present and future." Let's begin with our past. Whether our backgrounds take us back to China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, India, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Hawaii or other Pacific Islands - we all come from a history of feudalism, foreign domination, colonialism, Asian national traditions, Western chauvinism and racism. That's a whole lot of oppression.
All of our mothers knew the meaning of obedience, subservience, and knowing their place in both a male dominated and a racist society. Women's place worldwide, but especially in Asia, was/is second class. A quotation from India reads: "Man is gold. Woman is only an earthen vessel."
We must admit that such inequities are part of our Asian heritage, but it does not have to remain so. We must recognize that all heritage and traditions are not necessarily something to be proud of. We must continually discard what is confining or harmful and create what is beneficial, useful, broadening and humane. But the other side of the coin of the feudal period - and other eras mentioned - was constant struggle against injustices. Women in Asia as well as women in the Third World and everywhere have never ceased in their struggles. Today, that struggle continues even in this so-called democracy where inequities, injustices, exploitation and racism persist. New ideas and lifestyles must improve the quality of life not only for women but for men, children, everyone.
However, there are Asian traditions that we can continue and hold on to: the deep respect for the elderly; the preciousness of children the appreciation of nature; the proximity to the soil (land); and the reverence for the ancestors.
The bamboo has always been the symbol for the Asians - men and women. It's gracefulness and strength - able to bend with the wind; resilient but unbreakable; rooted in the solid ground.
It sounds nice, but today, we cannot deal in simple analogies and symbolism. Women in Asia are coming together, joining hands on problem they consider mutual. One of the struggles that liberated women of Japan are fighting against - along with women of Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Okinawa and Thailand - the growing sexploitation by Japanese businessmen who travel to those mentioned countries. The problem is so serious that progressive Asian leaders have publicly condemned Japanese prostitution tourism which has been booming in the 1970's. One Pilipino leader stated that this perpetration of a social evil is like a "sexual invasion of Imperial soldiers wearing civilian clothes." This immoral indulgence has expanded to Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Prostitution tourism is a classic example of the distorted political/economic relationship between capitalism and exploitation of women; and the social aspect of the violations of human rights meaning women's rights and women's dignity.
We are now in the 1980's. As Asian American women we have graduated from identity crisis to community organizing to Third World interaction to study groups, political education to supporting international liberation struggles. Much water has gone under the bridge. Asian awareness was born during the fight for Ethnic Studies twelve years ago and flowered during the Viet Nam War when we proudly marched in Asian contingents on both the West and East Coast in support of our Asian sisters and brothers in Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia.
In 1971, two historic meetings took place in Canada, one in Vancouver, the other in Toronto ... the Indochinese Women's Conference where several dozen Asian women along with several hundred Third World and white women from North America met with six unforgettable, indomitable women from Indochina; revolutionary women whose courage, spirit and warmth all struck the North Americans with a humanity and humility. Perhaps, these women - who were teachers, doctors, housewives, mothers, workers, all who worked collectively in the struggle (one who spent six years in the Tiger cages and survived) - brought with them the profoundest meaning or the best of Asian womanhood. It was a combination of gentility with strength, zeal with patience, commitment with understanding.
For most North American women who attended, it was the most moving event of that time. It was an international, transcontinental exchange during the height of the war, when North American women learned about the horrors and heroics that a cruel, unrelenting war could evoke; and Southeast Asian women heard for the first time the history of the Black, Native American, Chicano, Puerto Rican and Asian experience in America. What an impact these women must have made on one another.
Unforgettable, too, was that the planning for the conference had to be done clandestinely for fear that the U.S. government would stop the women from attending this momentous event.
We are here today at another women's conference. We did not cross oceans to gather. We do not need translators. There is nothing clandestine about this gathering. It is not an international meeting. But, this conference of East Coast Asian women can be meaningful, educational and have its own kind of impact. We are living in a very serious period of national retrogression with domestic policies, budget cuts and media control already closing avenues of special social, cultural outlets such as this. It is to your credit that this conference got off the ground, and that Asian women made an effort to attend. A couple of years from now, there may not be any more Asian or Third World gatherings. Asian Studies itself is being iced out across the country along with other ethnic studies. In New York, only City College and Hunter College have a few courses. In event that these meetings are halted, we must think of some kind of communication links in the future.
The Bakke and Weber cases made mileages for U.S. domestic policies against affirmative action, not only in education but in work places. We must fight to keep the gains made in the '60s.
Ethnic ties, ethnic unity and ethnic organizing have to give rise to ethnic creativity and talent. We Asians can be proud of the number of Asian women artists, writers, poets, singers, dancers, musicians, photographers, film makers. Women like - Nobuko Miyamoto, Chris Choy, Fay Chiang, Roberta Uno, Camillia Ry Wong, Diane Mark, Ginger Chih, Mitsu Yashima, Nelly Wong, Kazu lijima, Nancy Hom, Renee Tajima, Hisaye Desoto, Janice Mirikitani, Grace Lee Boggs and others. Art is not for art's sake.-For people's artists, art is for people's sake.
Internationally, we live in a world where all peoples and nations are interdependent. The oppression of any nation or people must be the concern of all. Today, as we see struggles enflaming in El Salvador, Namibia, the Middle East, Philippines, Eritrea, East Timor, Afghanistan - such diverse places - what strange names - now areas we must keep our eyes on. We must read and understand what is happening there in terms of U.S. involvement and imperialism and give support to those in liberation struggles. We are Third World women, international women.
And let us not forget that tomorrow March 8 is International Working Women's Day, recognized worldwide since its proclamation in Denmark in 1910. Yes, across the world, women are meeting and observing this landmark date. It began on March 8, 1857 in New York City's Lower East Side when women garment and textile workers demonstrated against oppressive working conditions in unsafe, nonunionized sweat shops. Fifty years later in 1908, the women of the Lower East Side marched again with similar demands including the eight-hour day, an end to child labor and the right to vote. In 1910, International Women's Day was proclaimed internationally through the effort of Claire Zeitkin of Germany, Alexandra Kollentai and Lenin of Russia, Rosa Luxembourg of Poland and Big Bill Haywood from the U.S. In 1917 in St. Peters, Russia, 90,000 women marched sparking the February revolution. In 1936, at the height of the Spanish Civil War against fascism, 80,000 women marched in Madrid demanding progress and liberty. In 1961, the Union of Women for the Liberation of South Viet Nam was founded to advance women's rights and struggles against imperialism. In 1970, International Working Women's Day was revived in the U.S. when women marched again. Where did they march? They marched to the old women's prison in New York City to protest vicious oppression behind the walls. In 1971, the Tuparmaros, a guerrilla organization in Uruguay, dressed as police, drove out of jail 50 women political prisoners. Women have inspired women. Thus, March 8 should hold a special place for women. It is a day of remembrance and commemoration.
As Asian women we have a unique history. Our mothers and grandmothers were pioneers. They crossed an ocean, learned a foreign language, adjusted to a new culture. They worked side by side with their husbands on plantations and farms; restaurants and laundries; small sweat shops and vegetable stands; in fish canneries and domestic work. They helped create Chinatowns, Japantowns, Manilatowns, and now Koreatowns. Their children's education and their children's future were their priority. They gave birth to a generation of Asian Americans. You students are here because of their backbreaking toil, their persistence, their courage, their sacrifice.
No citations, laws or memorials can repay them for the legacy they left ... except what you/we do with our life for the generations after us.